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WARNING: the Adverse Effects of Unilateral Sanctions


Last week, Congress overwhelmingly voted to increase sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although nuclear nonproliferation has become my life work’s purpose, I can’t, in my right mind, agree with our government’s decision to add increased sanctions. On the other

Before you stop reading, hear me out.

First, let’s examine the general reasons for economic sanctions against a target country. Usually, sanctions are a slap on the wrist signaling disagreement with or of a policy. Oftentimes, and notably since World War I, sanctions serve to show opposition to the target country. They are meant to pressure the country into policy change and/or go as far as to destabilize the target country’s government. To be fair, oftentimes, the cost of inaction is too high, and thus, sanctions are our only alternative.

Sanctions also serve a political purpose domestically. By imposing sanctions, the administration sends a signal to its own population to garner support in case of forthcoming military action. You may know this marketing technique as political propaganda.

I must admit that sanctions work. However, they are not effective in achieving our policy objectives. So is it worth it?

Sanctions, no matter how severe, are a long-term strategy of international diplomacy. Congress, however, is very shortsighted. Not only are imposed sanctions difficult to wave or undo, they have many adverse domestic affects.

Of course, this isn’t just our own government’s brilliant idea; other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and even the former USSR, have had their fair share of imposed sanctions.

The adverse effects of sanctions are many. Today, I wonder if they are even worth it. In an economic recession and with half the world speaking against U.S. intervention abroad, are more sanctions really the answer?

Negative Consequences of Sanctions

  • Empowering Civil Society

There is a fine line between coercing a government to reexamine its own position and empowering the entire population of the country to coalesce behind their government in opposition to the United States. Generations of people grow up hating the U.S. and the West. Since we don’t distinguish between the average person living in the country and sanctioning the government, we shouldn’t wonder why so many civilians hate Americans. Just as we lump the people with their government, they equate our citizens with our government.

  • Unintended Consequences

Furthermore, there are always unintended consequences. In the U.S., companies have been forced to close or to rework their entire business plan in order to survive. While Congress is considering sanctions, these companies may not even realize that these rules could hurt their businesses.

  • Alternative financiers

Oftentimes, unilateral sanctions fail because the targeted country can find alternative financiers with whom to conduct business. Although the sanctions may still have an effect on finances and business, the effect is miniscule, if at all. Many times, the sanctioned country would go as far as diversifying their investments to find new business partners.

  • Not strong enough to succeed

In order for unilateral or multilateral sanctions to be effective, they have to be hefty. If the sanctions aren’t weighty enough, the effect could go unnoticed and the government of the sanctioned country would not have incentive to even rethink their policies making the sanctions irrelevant.

This isn’t meant to encourage substantial sanctions, but something to consider when beginning the process of sanctioning a country.

The effectiveness of sanctions often depends on the longevity of the sanctions, how severe they are, and the trade links that had existed between the countries prior to sanctions.

The Iran Case

We have not had normal relations with Iran since 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution and the Hostage Crisis. In 1979, we sanctioned Iran in order to curb the military capabilities of the new Iranian leadership. The sanctions were meant to curb Iran’s ability to procure weapons of mass destruction and impede fighting during the Iraq-Iran war. In 1984, Iran joined the running list of states sponsoring terrorism. This prompted an immediate halt of all aid and many investment programs.

Until 1995, our sanctions were unilateral.

Between 1996 and 2006, Congress passed more sanctions cutting off aid and trying to persuade other countries from doing business with Iran.  In these years, the goal was to isolate Iran internationally. In 2001, two Executive orders, 13224 and 13382 were passed blocking U.S. based assets and persons from doing business with entities designated as conducting acts of terrorism, sponsoring terrorism, or supporting WMD proliferation.

2006 to 2010, Congress, along with foreign government partners, continued to isolate Iran, focusing on defining and closing loopholes in the Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) by calling on Iran to negotiate seriously and sign the Additional Protocol (AP), the safeguards mechanism of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Additionally, between this time, three UN Security Council Resolutions were passed, prohibiting UN members states from selling any material that could be dual-use in their WMD or missile program.

Between 2010 and 2012, multilateral sanctions on Iran increased. These sanctions were focused on harming Iran’s civilian economy. Thus, oil and the Central Bank were sanctioned. Foreign firms selling gasoline to Iran were also sanctioned. After the 2009 “Green Revolution,” Iranian human rights abusers were also sanctioned.

Most recently, in July 2012, the EU imposed an embargo on Iranian oil. That same month, President Obama issued another Executive Order banning purchase of Iranian crude oil. In August, both the U.S. House and Senate sanctioned Iran further, amending previous legislation whereby approval from Congress is necessary for any sanction repeals to be made.

Unilateral sanctions just don’t work. If we must sanction, we should do so with other countries that share our political agendas and sympathies. Although there are many issues that arise with multilateral sanctions, they are more effective than unilateral sanctions.

So you see, unilateral sanctions, albeit a tool of foreign policy, are ineffective. If, however, sanctions continue to play a role, we should use them sparingly and in conjunction with other tools such as diplomacy and negotiations.